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Al Anbar governor brings pay, hope to small-town Iraqi police force

27 Jun 2006 | Capt. Mike Alvarez

After months of fighting terrorists, patrolling improvised explosive device-laden streets and working with minimal equipment to secure this small town in Al Anbar province, police officers here received nearly four months of back pay from Al Anbar’s top government official recently.

During a June 21 visit to Baghdadi – a small town nestled along the Euphrates River just miles south of Haditha – Maamoon Sami Rasheed al-Awani, governor of Al Anbar province, presented a ceremonial check to Baghdadi’s police chief.

The check, which amounted to about $620,000, symbolized a long-awaited payment to the Baghdadi district police force.

Baghdadi Police Chief Col. Sha’ban Ubaydi received the symbolic check from the governor during a city council meeting while dozens of regional tribal and city leaders watched.

In a stuffy room filled with local leaders, tribal sheikhs, coalition and Iraqi Army officials, Ubaydi spoke of the officers who have lost their lives fighting for their community and the challenges his police force faces daily in the fight against terrorists. He also stated that he is willing to serve anywhere in Iraq to provide security for his country — indicative of the dedication he and his police officers have exhibited daily in fighting crime and terrorism for months without pay.

Just months ago, Ubaydi’s brother was killed by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber while turning insurgents over to coalition forces just outside Camp Al Asad — a large U.S. military airbase located just west of Baghdadi.

“He gave his life for his brothers,” said Ubaydi in an interview just weeks after the attack.

Police forces throughout western Al Anbar have suffered numerous attacks in recent months — mortar attacks, beheadings, suicide bombers and small-arms fire.

Just last month in Husaybah, Iraq, a newly-established police station was attacked twice by suicide bombers. The attacks killed five Iraqi police officers in the Iraqi-Syrian border town of about 10,000. 

The day after each attack, Husaybah’s police officers were back on the job, unfazed by the potential of further deadly attacks.

“The Iraqis responded well and they were pretty amazing,” said Maj. Robert C. Marshall, the officer-in-charge of the Al-Qaim region’s transition team.

Husaybah police also received pay recently. Altogether, all six of western Al Anbar’s police districts have received nearly $1.3 million in back pay.

A lack of consistent pay has been the primary cause for the high attrition rate within fledgling Iraqi police forces in western Al Anbar province since late last year, according to Maj. Lowell F. Rector, the 42-year-old Marine in charge of all U.S. police transition teams who mentor, train and oversee the establishment of Iraqi police forces throughout the western Al Anbar province. 

The pay problems were exacerbated last year when former provincial and district police chiefs, who were responsible for ensuring Iraqi police officers were paid, were arrested for embezzlement.

That, according to Rector, left a void in the pay process that was not filled until the recent payments.

“The entire western Euphrates River Valley benefited from this (day),” said Rector, adding that consistent pay will provide incentive for more men to join the police force and encourage those who are currently in the ranks to stay in the ranks. 

“Police give urban areas a sense of community,” said Rector, who will return to his full-time job as a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, following his current tour of duty in Iraq. 

In the past five months, the Baghdadi police force has suffered a dramatic decrease in its number of police officers. Since February, nearly half of the force’s police have resigned due to the lack of pay, said Rector. Now, thanks to the long-awaited back-pay and Awani’s visit, there is a new air of optimism in Ubaydi’s squad of policemen , said Rector. 

Just yesterday, police transition team members confirmed that 35 Baghdadi police officers who left the force have decided to rejoin after receiving their back-pay. They anticipate the return of many more, said Rector.

“Getting paid is a very good feeling…not because we made money, but because more people will join now,” said Shu’aib Hamreen, a 22-year-old Baghdadi police officer, as he slung his rifle over his shoulder in the blue uniform he and the rest of his fellow officers were issued just weeks ago.

“You’ll see more I.P.s (Iraqi police officers) coming to work,” said Rector pointing out that an increase in police officers will provide a more secure environment — a prerequisite for economic growth. “You’ll see a lot of people come back to the area which will stimulate the local economy.”

Earlier that day in a conference room at Camp Al Asad — headquarters of Regimental Combat Team 7— the Marines briefed Awani on key issues vital to the success of western Al Anbar province.

RCT-7 is responsible for training Iraqi soldiers and police while simultaneously providing security for western Al Anbar province – an area roughly 32,000 square miles in size.  

“Where you have more police in the cities ... that’s where you see the people are more willing to work,” said Lt. Col. Andrew T. Roberto to Awani.

Roberto spearheads civil affairs operations throughout western Al Anbar province – a region which stretches from the Jordanian and Syrian borders hundreds of miles to just shy of cities like Ramadi and Fallujah.

Just like Rector, Roberto, 41, will return back to his job as a police officer in his hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., following his tour here.

Civil Affairs works throughout Al Anbar province with local government officials, sheikhs, mayors and other key leaders to identify and jumpstart various reconstruction and quality of life projects designed to rebuild damaged infrastructure in the region.

But these reconstruction and quality of life projects are grim prospects without policemen present to provide security in these towns.

“Everything comes down to safety and security,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Nagel, executive officer for 3rd Civil Affairs Group, Detachment 1. 

In a region where the insurgency wages what the Marines call an “intimidation campaign” against those who cooperate with the local government or coalition forces, a sufficient police force is required to assure the safety and security of the communities, Nagel said.

“If I build a school — who’s going to keep the insurgents from using the school as a staging ground for terrorist activity?” said the 40-year-old Encino, Calif., native. 

Awani understands the need for security on a personal level himself.  On May 2, Awani was on his way to work at the government center in Ramadi when a suicide bomber drove and detonated a car bomb near his security convoy, killing 10 civilians, according to a Department of Defense press release.  The attack was the 29th attempt on his life.

It’s attacks like these, whether against a notable government official, coalition and Iraqi forces, or civilians, that the Marines say an Iraqi police presence in local communities will help prevent.

“The people understand that the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police provide stability,” said Roberto.

The recent payment to the police undoubtedly signaled a step in the right direction for recruitment and retention in the Iraqi Police of the western Al Anbar province, said Nagel.

Now that the police are getting paid, many will join and the situation will get better, said Jbar Barzan, a 32-year-old captain in the Baghdadi Police.

“(I) hope Marines will someday come back to visit (Iraq) without weapons because it will be secure,” said Hamreen.

Email Capt. Alvarez at: alvarezm@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil.